Just Grandma and Me. (educational software) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Clayton Walnum
If you've been looking for an entertaining way to help your children learn to read, Broderbund has the program for you. Just Grandma and Me, the first title in the company's new Living Books series, will captivate your child. It's an interactive storybook that fully uses the multimedia capability of your computer.
Children's software and Broderbund go hand in hand. Over the past several years, the company has created perhaps the best children's software library in the business. Programs like Kid Pix, The Treehouse, and The Playroom, all of which provide an interactive learning environment, are adored by kids--and, of course, by their parents. Now, with the introduction of the Living Books series, Broderbund is adding yet more extraordinary titles to an already superior product line.
Just Grandma and Me, based on a book by Mercer Mayer, is a delightful romp through a storybook come to life. From the first page to the last, readers will be enthralled with this new style of storytelling that is just a hop away from a fully interactive cartoon.
When the program begins, the story's main character, Little Critter, guides children through the process of selecting options and getting the story going. For example, using full animation and digitized sound, Little Critter tells your child, "To have the story read to you, press this button. To play inside the story, press this button." As he speaks, he points to the appropriate button onscreen. It's a cinch for even very young children to run the program without adult assistance.
The first option, Read to Me, lets children sit back and enjoy a fully animated reading of the book without having to interact further with the program. One after another, the program displays and reads each page of the story, highlighting the words as they are read-an invaluable learning aid for early readers. After the program reads each page, a minicartoon takes over, filling out the current scene. For example, on the first page, Grandma and Little Critter hold a short conversation about their upcoming trip; then a bus trundles down the road, stops before them, and allows them to climb aboard.
Although Just Grandma and Me is targeted at children, you'd have to be a cold adult indeed not to be affected by its delightful story and sharp sense of wit. The cartoon sequences range from charming to hilarious. In fact, adults, just like children, will find it difficult to quit before the entire story has run its course. Also like the kids, most parents will enjoy seeing the story again and again. So although the program requires little or no adult assistance, it's likely that the "big people" will linger once the program has started, looking over their offspring's shoulders as the story unfolds.
In typical Broderbund fashion, Just Grandma and Me goes way beyond being a simple storytelling program. When children choose the Let Me Play button, they can interact, with virtually any element of any page in the book. Such interaction leads them into a wonderful, witty world of zaniness that is not only fun but also--dare I say it?--educational. And while children can choose the Let Me Play option to play in the story starting from page 1, a separate option screen allows them to choose, by picture, the page to which they'd like to go, immediately jumping them to favorite scenes and eliminating any need to wait for preceding pages to flip past.
Some examples of the silliness to be found in the Play mode include beach umbrellas that snap shut and rocket into the sky; clams that sing in perfect three-part harmony; a dog that scratches furiously as fleas leap from his fur and escape into the ocean; a starfish that dons a top hat and cane and performs the old soft-shoe; a raccoon that steps off her beach blanket and jumps around, yelping, on the hot sand; fish that spray unsuspecting characters with sea water; a fence that can be played like a xylophone; and crabs that bother nearby fish. Children can easily activate dozens and dozens of other similar objects with single mouse clicks.
On the educational side, each page's text is also interactive. When a child clicks on a word, the word is highlighted and pronounced. This is a perfect way for children not only to learn to read new words but also to discover the way in which sentences are constructed from the words.
Just Grandma and Me's graphics, which are displayed in 256-color, 640 x 480 Super VGA, are colorful and detailed, drawing readers irresistibly into the cartoon fantasy. As already mentioned, every scene features topnotch animation sequences, scenes so good that they approach cartoon quality. And the careful attention the designers paid to facial expressions adds much to the characterization. Hundreds of digital voices and sound effects further enhance the story: Waves splash, breezes blow, birds chirp, cows moo, helicopters clatter overhead, telephones ring, chimneys chuff, dogs bark, radios play music, and on and on.
As if this weren't enough, Just Grandma and Me can read the story to your child in three languages: English, Spanish, and, Japanese. While the main goal of developing a multilingual program was more than likely an effort to increase its market share, doing so also enhances the story's educational value. Not only is it fascinating to see and hear the story in another language (especially in an exotic language like Japanese), but older children can also get some valuable lessons in what it's like to speak a different language. Unfortunately, the package doesn't include a multilingual dictionary that cross-references the words used in the book, an option that would've been helpful to parents and older children.
For those who savor traditional storytelling, Just Grandma and Me includes the original book by Mercer Mayer. Children can follow along in the book as the program reads the story. And, more important, parents can sit with their children and read the story the old-fashioned way. There's probably not a better way for parents to share quality time with their children than sitting close, reading a book together. In fact, many child experts say that young children should be read to several times a day.
Just Grandma and Me is superb, but it's a rare piece of software that doesn't suffer at least a minor flaw or two. However, if you try to find a fly in this ointment, you'll have to dig deep indeed. In fact, if Just Grandma and Me has a negative side, it's only that it has high hardware expectations: an 80386SX or compatible with Windows 3.1, a CD-ROM drive, a sound card, a Super VGA monitor, and four megabytes of RAM. Still, it's programs like Just Grandma and Me that encourage people to upgrade their machines, and Broderbund is to be applauded for taking the lead in advancing the state of the art of educational multimedia software.
In short, this is a virtuoso performance from a company dedicated to excellence in educational software. An electronic storybook overflowing with one enchanting discovery after another, Just Grandma and Me truly demonstrates the power of multimedia computing. It's also the perfect babysitter.